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Prokofiev and the press:a commentary

Noelle MANN


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“Prokofiev is everywhere!” exclaimed in disbelief a critic from The Observer, who clearly was no fan. As a direct result of “Prokofiev 2003”, the Association’s initiative, an impressive array of events earlier this year established the UK as the focal point of world-wide celebrations. Two festivals, one international symposium, illustrated talks, numerous recitals, chamber and symphonic concerts (see David Nice concerts round-up in this issue) marked the start of the anniversary year. In contrast to Television, which failed to rise to the challenge, BBC Radio 3 offered two special programmes, Music Matters on 23 February and an entire Prokofiev evening on 4 March. This celebratory mood was picked up by the music press and daily newspapers, who responded with a flurry of articles and reviews. Most welcome were issues in the specialist press dedicated to Prokofiev such as Piano and the BBC Music Magazine. Overseas, the anniversary was marked with Prokofiev issues in Le Monde de la Musique and Classica in France, Crescendo in Belgium and Pianowereld in the Netherlands.
     The prevalent image emerging from the media is that of a man who, somewhat to their surprise, remains a baffling enigma, and about whom much is still left to be discovered. “Prokofiev is a composer well known for quite a small amount of work, and about whom not so much is known”, said BBC Radio 3 producer, Adam Gatehouse. “Discover the man behind the myth” wrote James Meek in a lead article for The Guardian; “Do you know Prokofiev?” asked Classical Music; and while Jeremy Siepmann, Editor of Piano, looked at the “many Prokofievs”, James Meek outlined “a different Prokofiev”.
     Behind the alluring titles, however, were questions that have puzzled commentators for decades – the motives behind Prokofiev’s return to the Soviet Union and his allegiance there, and whether his reputation in the West had changed significantly in recent years. The last time these issues had been aired in the press was after the Centenary celebrations of 1991, when some of Prokofiev’s party works, such as Zdravitsa and the never-heard Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, had made their way to western concert halls. The novelty of these works, their gigantic proportions and the extravagantly vast forces which the Cantata in particular required, had gained Prokofiev a host of new fans. Heated debates arose in the next few years however, in particular with Richard Taruskin whose onslaughts in two articles for The New York Times (1995 and 1996), sent terrific shock-waves through performers and musicologists alike. Responding to a performance of “Ivan the Terrible” (film with live music) in 1995, Taruskin wrote an article, “Great artists serving Stalin like a dog”, which raised the issue of whether it is possible or desirable to ignore a film’s content – in this instance “Stalinist triumphalism” – for the sake of its music. This was followed a year later with another angry article, “Stalin lives on in the concert hall, but why?”, brought on by the delirious reception that met concerts given by the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus under Valery Gergiev. These concerts featured party works such as Zdravitsa, which prompted Taruskin to ask: “Are we celebrating the freedom to perform of our own volition works that were once forced down gullets and banned by turns? That might understandably make them attractive to Mr Gergiev and his hard-working players. [...] But what then would be the appeal of these works to those who never had to suffer them in the first place?” And further: “What can it mean in year five of the Sovietless New World order, to perform and acclaim the dregs of a vile personality cult?” Moving on to Prokofiev’s motives in composing such works, Taruskin maintained that “he wrote those pieces for the money and for the privilege of touring in the West, as many post-Soviet musicians now concede. Until he was humiliated in 1948, Prokofiev was a famous cynic.” These were the prevalent issues in the mind of most UK commentators as they started re-assessing Prokofiev’s legacy and reputation early in 2003. As a result, they paid little attention to Prokofiev’s entire life and output, and instead, focussed on the Soviet artist, his objectives and position in Moscow. They also discussed the extent to which his reputation has been tainted by his so-called blind allegiance to the party line and, if opinions varied, most critics agreed that these issues called for a deeper critical assessment.
     Looking at Prokofiev’s motives, David Nice in the Financial Times argued that he wrote party works not to gain Stalin’s favours, a sadly common view among writers, but because he “wanted to write big works for mass audience” and also because “he greeted the challenge to be a man of his times without making any explicit political statement”. With “Out of Stalin’s Shadows” in The Guardian, James Meek took another stance and, along with a growing number of commentators who take the view that Prokofiev was forced to write official works, he saw hidden messages in the music, thus suggesting that there was an element of subversion in these works: “The idea that Prokofiev never opposed the authorities in his art is, in any case, a myth”. Prokofiev and Eisenstein, says Meek, had a plan in Ivan the Terrible “to hold a mirror up to the tyrant”. And in the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, he maintains that “the music mocks the pompous words with its crude, plodding scales, and speaks of horror rather than triumph”. But Norman Lebrecht in the Evening Standard defends a different view in “Stalin’s final victim”: “There is no contention about Prokofiev as there is about Shostakovich (or even Tchaikovsky), no secret messages encrypted in the music, nothing but fertile melody and cracking originality”. Instead, Lebrecht seeks Prokofiev’s redemption in a novel way, stating that if the composer’s reputation came to be tainted, it was not by his actions, but as a result of not surviving Stalin.
     “Potentate and artist, tyrant and victim, were unlikely linked by the accident of death. They have remained conjoined ever since. [...] Within three years [after his death], Stalin’s crimes were denounced by Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th party congress and the Great Leader and Teacher was consigned to perdition. A slow thaw set in. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Gulag; Dmitri Shostakovich codified the Great Terror in his symphonies. Artists who outlived Stalin eased his stain from their work. Prokofiev, who died with him, remains half-damned by association.” And further: “When Stalin died, Shostakovich managed to obliterate his forced obeisances in the bitingly laconic Tenth Symphony. Prokofiev, in his grave, could not clean himself of compromise. He appears, to the eyes of history, a weak man, over-fond of comfort and lacking in moral courage. Stalin’s grin continues to blight a damaged reputation.”     
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